1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8Mars Society Switzerland
Private enterprise as an alternative way of funding Space exploration
Feasibility of inhabited flights to Mars
Recently, you certainly read newspaper announcements of private business initiatives in Space. Such private enterprises would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. Most extraordinary may be the undertaking of "space activist" Peter Diamandis who, on April 24, informed the world of the creation of "Planetary Resources" a company supported by several well-known entrepreneurs including Larry Page, Eric Schmidt (Google), Charles Simonyi (Microsoft) James Cameron. Its purpose is to exploit the metal-rich asteroids of the near Earth environment ("Near Earth Asteroids" or "NEA"). The purpose of Planetary Resources is justified by the precious metal content of asteroids that indeed can be very high. In South Africa where are located the major platinum mines, minerals can at best provide between 3 to 5 grams of "pgm" ("platinum group metals") per metric ton whereas some asteroids could contain 50 grams per ton. Minerals found on Earth, originate most likely from the “Late Heavy Bombardment” ("LHB") which occurred after the Earth's crust formed, some 3.9 billion years ago. Then, during a short period of time (a few million years), the Earth received a “rain” of asteroids as a consequence of disturbances created by Jupiter return to the outer solar system (cf. “Nice” model). Without the LHB, there would be almost no precious metals on Earth crust surface because these metals which were in the Earth's orbit area at the time of the accretion of our planet, some 4.5 billion years ago, sank quickly to its iron core on account of their high density and the almost liquid surface magma of the planet. Now that Earth richest deposits have been mined, getting precious metals from the NEA asteroids should not be much more difficult than digging wells several kilometers deep in the crust or collecting polymetallic nodules on the oceans floor. The accessibility of NEA is facilitated by their proximity to Earth (provided that the eccentricity of their orbits is not too high) and their negligible gravity pull. This implies a relatively reasonable amount of energy compared to that which is needed for trips to the Moon or Mars that are deep "gravity pits". Landing onto those means vigorous braking, and taking off, powerful boosts. The downside of microgravity is obviously the difficulty of working in an environment where anything weights nothing. Mineral extraction and loading will not be easy. Overall the total cost of exploitation is probably too high to be presently worth it "economically wise" (even at $ 40,000 a kilo of platinum) but this is certainly something that can be considered as technically feasible and financially rewarding in the future. We must realize that the creation of Planetary Resources adds up to other recent developments. Together they provide elements of a future Space economy within which private partners could interact not only with public Space agencies but also between themselves and the Public, “Earth” companies and individuals. Among these other initiatives, we can note the submission by SpaceX (Elon Musk) to the tender for servicing NASA's International Space Station ("ISS") with Falcon 9 launch vehicles equipped with Dragon capsules, followed by NASA’s preselecting of SpaceX in December 2008. As everyone knows the test flight was successfully completed on May 31st. As a result the company won the contract for a dozen flights and this should bring some $ 1.6 billion to its bank account. But these initiatives are not the only ones. On May 11th 2012, Bigelow Aerospace (Robert Bigelow) signed an agreement with SpaceX to cross-promote their Space business, that is the sale of Falcon 9 rocket flights and the operating of "BA330" Bigelow space hotels (330 cubic meters of living space modules). This could be a way for SpaceX to raise funds apart from servicing the ISS. Promotion of the joint venture began in Asia ... where the money is. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson) is working on generating income and hopefully profits, from short suborbital commercial flights (100km). With a long term view, Richard Branson launched a “venture” for manned flights to Mars ("Virgle" project, launched in April 2008, in collaboration with Google). In Russia, in August 2011, "Orbital Technologies" ("OT"), a partially private company (Roscosmos, Energia, IBMP), launched a project of "Orbital Space Station" with a 20 cubic meters living space. In the frame of these various organizations, private entrepreneurs are not only working to obtain contracts from NASA (or other public agencies), but also to sell their services / equipment to other companies or individuals. That means that funding could come not only from the major Space agencies but also "other" sources. If this "new" economy succeeds somehow in generating profits, entrepreneurs who run it would be fostered to go even further and they could do so independently, on the basis of economies of scale on their launchers / equipment which would be produced in large numbers (series). They would have money and equipment to act and they would not be subject to political constraints that nowadays hinder space flight to Deep Space, earmarking them as low priorities to the benefit of social and other policies. “Even further” could mean the asteroids of the "Asteroid Belt" between Mars and Jupiter (to begin with). These are much more numerous than NEA (millions rather than thousands) and they obviously offer a wider choice of metals and metal content. It could mean, afterwards and indirectly, the Mars planet. We must indeed keep in mind that all the entrepreneurs mentioned above are "Mars Dreamers" in the meaning given to these words by the Swiss movie maker Richard Dindo, in his film of the same name (2010). If these entrepreneurs get the means to go to Mars, do not doubt that they will go, with an objective of personal enrichment, scientific quest, and adventure minded. We could actually, in case of exploitation of the asteroids of the “Belt”, use Mars as an advanced base. Observation equipment would be set up there, to determine which asteroids should be visited. Crews could take refuge and store equipment / machines / chemical products for their activity. Using Mars for that purpose would save time, energy and enhance security as compared to the only opportunity of a return to Earth (depending, however, upon the location of the asteroid with respect to Mars and Earth when the need to "land "or get spare parts would arise). This would create as side effect, the possibility of a more effective scientific exploration of the planet. Obviously this will become possible only after we build some permanent settlement(s) on Mars but, Deep Space flights becoming frequent, the cost of travel would shrink and the horizon of this future get closer. It is therefore very important both for the economic prosperity of the Earth and for the advancement of Sciences, that the emergence of such private space economy be successful. That is why we do welcome those first steps. They are a very important milestone for the further action of Man in Space . Pierre Brisson President of the Mars Society Switzerland
Orion Space-X back to Earth (May 31st 2012) Photo credit: Space-X Corporation
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